Hey friends who are going to comment on this, please remember that whatever criticism you may have about this column and the advice therein should be pointed at me. The person who wrote this question is an actual person who will actually read your comments and can actually be loved or hurt. Please take care of her, even as you engage in a spirited debate.
Ephesians 6:2-3 tells us we must honor our father and mother. I have continuously wrestled with this verse as one of my parents was abusive. What does it mean by honoring them? Am I disobeying God if I don’t have a relationship with one of my parents?
Thanks for your time,
Ashley, before I get rolling on what honoring may look like in your circumstance, I want to assure you of something: Your abuse was not warranted. Even if you were the most bratty, difficult, disrespectful punk of a kid, whatever abuse you suffered was horrible and wrong. I hope you know that. And even if you don’t, or have some reply queued up like, “Well, it was a complex situation and sometimes …”, I hope you continue to heal and grow and know for certain that your abuse was unjust. You are perfectly and wonderfully made.
Having said that, let’s talk about your thoughtful and quite honorable question about how to honor a parent who is also an abuser. And let me just say, it says so much about you that you would even care enough to engage this idea. Because no one, and likely not even God, would blame you for running from that abuse and never looking over your shoulder to address Ephesians 6:2-3 (Exodus 20:12, Colossians 3:20). But you have, and I respect you for it.
To that end, I’ve done a fair amount of research in preparation for this question because, quite unfortunately, abuse and our reconciling of that abuse is almost common. I think there’s a deeper conversation to be had—one that focuses on the nature of God.
The Nature of God
My podcasting buddy, Joy Eggerichs, says a lot of wise things. But one of my favorite things I’ve heard her say is, “Hey, you know what, God isn’t out to trick you.”
Every time she says that, I get jolted back into a new place of thinking—a place where I remember that whatever I’m questioning at the moment is not best served by swirling in my own scriptural knowledge or feelings about a topic—but rather by remembering God, His character and His desires.
Ashley, to your inquiry about honoring an abusive parent, I would first say God isn’t out to trick you. God is out to love you, walk with you, even restore and redeem that which has been lost in you (and all of us to some extent). Put more directly, God did not chisel the fifth commandment in the hopes that you would remain or return to an abusive situation. That is, by any reasonable standard, outside of the character of a loving God whose heart, compassion and grace is on display throughout the canon of Scripture.
Now people will say, “Well, God wrote that, how can you just choose to ignore it when it’s convenient for you?” I won’t ignore it, and neither should you, Ashley. But I also won’t ignore everything that happens after Moses received those words.
In the broadest of terms, those commandments (and the following chapters of instruction) were not God’s only words—they were His first words. Furthermore, they were words meant for a group of people who had completely derailed. And, like a good parent who is appropriately disciplining a child, God gave some very clear, easy to understand action steps that would help them get back on track.
But the kids grew up, and then they wandered, and then they came back, and then time lapsed, and then—Jesus. And it’s in Jesus that words that were chiseled in stone get covered with the soft blanket of grace.
Grace, Ashley, grace—that’s the nature of your loving Father who did speak those words “Honor your father and your mother” many millennia ago, but who also said:
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged (Colossians 3:21).
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
And my favorite:
You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that mere earthly mortals
will never again strike terror
Ashley, honoring your parent, by no reasonable standard—let alone God’s standard (see aforementioned scripture)—means having to engage them and continue to be abused. However, just because Grace abounds, we can’t ignore the clear command to honor. But how?
First, I would continue to do what I suspect you’re already doing, which is praying for the person who abused you. This is a big/difficult/brave step and it’s not something that’s necessarily something everyone is ready for, but it is a healthy goal. Because while there may be some fluidity on how kids are to honor parents, there’s nothing but clarity for how we are to care for our “enemies,” that is, by not letting our hearts harden to them. So a huge first step would be to pray for the person who abused you. Pray for their journey. Pray for whoever it is that hurt them so much that they thought hurting someone else was OK. Pray for them to know God and for them to be transformed into the image of Christ.
Second (and really you should do this at the same time as the first one, I just like lists), you should pray for yourself. Ask God to form your heart to see your abuser as God sees your abuser: as a child of God. Yes, the child may have strayed and disobeyed, to put it lightly, but they are a person whom God loves deeply, and we should be about the things that God is about.
Finally, and now I’m speaking as a parent, the best thing my daughters could do to honor me would not be to face me and do all they can to please me, but face the world and serve God relentlessly. Please do that, Ashley. Honor your parents by being a child who breaks the cycle of abuse, chooses grace over hate and walks into the world determined to be a light in a dark place.
Might honoring your abuser/parent look like reengaging with them? For some, that has been the path—for others, it has not. Might you need to set up stronger boundaries to keep distance from them? You may. And finally, might you need to completely disassociate with that person because the trauma is too much? Yes, Ashley, that may be your case. These are all valid, and there are ways to do them all honorably.
However these questions shake out, you can still honor your mother and father by: Recognizing that they are God’s children. Praying for them. Remembering that God did do at least one incredible thing through them (they made you!). And finally, living a life that isn’t spent shrinking in the shadow of the past—but thriving in the light of God’s grace.
You are not alone in this struggle. Many of us are journeying and praying with you.
Have a question? Good! Send an email to [email protected]. All identifying information will be kept anonymous.
Eddie Kaufholz is a writer, speaker and podcaster and serves as a director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission. He also hosts and produces "The New Activist" podcast. You can find on Twitter @EdwardorEddie.